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Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

Historical Sketches

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Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia
Publication No. 17 - 1973

The Man and His Times

By Myralin Trayer

The life of Samuel Elbert Smith spanned most of the latter half of the 19th century and much of the first half of the 20th. During his long life he functioned in many different capacities: husband, father, farmer, carpenter, cabinetmaker, blacksmith, coffin maker, school teacher, scribe and postmaster. He was a man of strong convictions, but he was subject to the frailties that plague all men.

Samuel was born on 10 April 1858, the son of William Henderson Smith and Julia Ann McClellan Smith. He was born at the family home on Copper Ridge in Scott County, Virginia (1) Samuel was descended from Benjamin Smith who was, according to family tradition, the first Smith to come to that part of the country. (2)

The outbreak of the Civil War when he was only four years old and its subsequent cancerous spread over the once- peaceful South must have been a factor in shaping the character of the man. One must wonder if that bloody conflict, with its intense polarity of ethical beliefs, coming as it did during those formative years of his young life, could be the contributing factor in the strength of his later political convictions. All of his life he was known to be a strong Republican. (3) This was not a popular position in the Reconstruction South where Republicans were associated with the Union - the North. But Virginia was a border state, and there was a significant number of families who followed those political conscience demands. There were also many families which were divided over the question of secession and slavery, thus producing the often-dramatized split family.

Samuel was too young to participate in the war, even as a childish drummer boy, but the family was not untouched by the war around them. Their home and family were not directly involved, but the nearness of the battles and the ever-present fear and threat of battle was not a setting milieu for living. In September, 1864, the county court clerk, Sylvester Patton McConnell, was ordered to remove the court records and keep them hidden lest they be destroyed by the enemy. Only after the end of the war were they returned to the courthouse in Gate City. (4)

Farms in the community around them were sacked to provide food and supplies for the opposing armies. In one family, the Landon J. Elliotts, neighbors of the Smiths, two of the young sons were instructed by their father to remove the livestock from the barn, drive the animals over a hill behind the house and hide them in a hollow between covering ridges. The boys were successful in their efforts, and the animals were not seized by the soldiers. (5)

William Henderson Smith, Samuel's father, was born 3 May 1824. He married Julia Ann McClellan on 23 December 1857. William was twenty-three and Julia was eighteen. Julia was the daughter of Samuel McClellan and Rebecca Lane McClellan. William and Julia's first child was a daughter, Rebecca, who was born about 1849. She married Joe Southern and had three children.

The second child of William and Julia was Samuel's only brother, Logan, but he died as a child; and Samuel was brought up as the only brother in a family of girls.

The third child was Minerva L. who was born about 1854. She married Henderson McConnell and had five children.

Sarepta Jane was the fourth child. She was born 5 March 1856, married Alva Elliott on 4 March 1878, and eventually had twelve children. On the 1860 census of Scott County she is listed as Nancy S. J., so we may assume that Nancy was a part of her name although it does not appear as such on any other records found to date.

The fifth child is the subject of this report, Samuel Elbert. His marriage to Sarah McConnell and his six children will be discussed in more detail.

The sixth, and youngest, child of William and Julia was Victoria, who married William Strong and had ten children. (6)

This prolific family was typical of farm families who solved their labor problems in some small measure by giving birth to the workers they needed. Sometimes they were girls instead of the hoped-for sons, but the girls were expected to work just as long and just as hard as the boys. The scope of their responsibilities was somewhat different, but the intensity of the work was very similar.

Samuel grew into a man of average height and chunky build. He has a protruding chin and very dark hair. When he was an old man and his hair had become thin and gray, he recalled with pleasure that his hair had once been so black "that it looked blue." (7)

When he was twenty years of age he fell in love with and married a young lady who lived in the community, seventeen-year-old Sarah Elizabeth McConnell. (8) She was a slender young woman with large serious eyes and a sweet, vulnerable looking face which matched an unwavering iron will. She was the youngest child of James Thomas McConnell and his second wife, Elizabeth Elliott McConnell. There were five children from Thomas' first marriage and seven from the second.

Sarah inherited the family home and about a hundred acres of farm and timber land from her family, and it was here that the young couple began their marriage. The house was originally a log structure with one large room downstairs and another of the same dimensions above it. There was a wide hall running from front to back with a broad staircase leading to the room above. Later Samuel added another room downstairs, smaller than the first, and one of matching size upstairs above it. There was a large stone chimney at each end of the house, and each of the rooms was heated by a fireplace. Originally, all cooking was done on these fireplaces also. They were equipped with swinging-arm- cranes from which large pots were suspended. Sarah also used pots called "bakers" in the fireplace. Later Samuel covered the original logs with weather boarding and added two porches (porticoes) to the front of the house, one upstairs and one downstairs. He also built a kitchen and dining room at the back of the house and connected them to the house with an open breezeway. The house was painted white, and its decorative trim around the porticoes and the turned-wood spindles which supported the porch rails, together with the cedar shake roof of the house, made it a very attractive home.

The larger of the downstairs rooms was Sarah and Samuel's bed and sitting room; the other, the "Blue Room," was used as a company bedroom and parlor. Both of the upstairs rooms were bedrooms. (9)

There was a small stream flowing through the side yard on the west side of the house. Samuel and Sarah constructed a spring house on its clear water where milk and other dairy products could be kept cold. It became one of the children's chores later to keep the spring house clean of leaves and mud. The stream also provided many hours of fun for the children as a playground. There was one place in the stream where white clay could be found. This clay, shaped lovingly and dried in the sun, was used in making many childish doll dishes.

Sarah maintained a small kitchen garden in the backyard while Samuel battled daily with the hilly land to try to carve a living from it. Much of the acreage was left in timberland, and Samuel also had an apple orchard on the land. There was a cellar, entered through the breezeway between the house and kitchen, for the storage of apples, corn and potatoes throughout the year. Outside the backyard were located the grainry and smokehouse. Further to the east was Samuel's blacksmith shop. (10)

Sarah and Samuel's first child, a daughter, was born 10 May 1879. She was named Julia Elizabeth for her two grandmothers. In 1881 there was another child, Arban Jeff; and in 1883 another son, Wiley L. was born. The happiness of the year 1883 was not to last however, and within six months both of the baby sons died, (11) and there would never be another son for Sarah and Samuel. There were, however, three more daughters: Bertha Alice born 18 June 1884; Alpha L. was born in 1890; and Ida Mae was born in 1894.

Samuel was a firm believer in education, but he was willing to send only one of his daughters, the oldest, to college. The other daughters exhibited a fine native intelligence, and they earnestly desired a further education; but Samuel was not to be shaken in his position. Julia must "share" her education with her sisters by teaching them what she had learned.

Julia later became a school teacher in the Scott County school system and married one of her students, Edwin W. Lane, on 9 August 1905. Bertha never received the education she wanted so badly, but through daily self education she became skilled in home nursing. She was quite familiar with herbs and wild plants. A cousin, Dr. Hiram McConnell, regularly called on her to accompany him to take care of the sick in the community. Bertha married William Leonard McConnell on 17 June 1903, and eventually gave birth to fifteen children. Thirteen of them lived to maturity.

Alpha married Henry M. McConnell on 9 December 1912. They settled in Florida. They had no children.

Ida Mae married John Lee Stallard on 7 May 1909. She died in childbirth in May, 1925. (12)

During his lifetime Samuel E. Smith showed himself to be a man of many talents and abilities. He was not a professional man, but he was an industrious man. He never made a fortune, but he provided amply for his family, and he taught them valuable lessons in thrift, economy and industriousness.

Samuel was a farmer. He raised vegetables and grain on the cultivated portion of the farm. He kept cows, pigs, chickens, and other farm animals, as well as a team of horses for pulling the farm equipment and the wagons and carriage for transportation. Wheat and corn were carried to the mill to be ground into flour and meal. Cane was grown and made into molasses. Sugar maples provided maple sugar. Molasses and maple sugar were called "long sweetening." Granulated sugar, "short sweetening," had to be bought, and it was a special treat. The farm provided for all the needs of the family except coffee (parched grain was sometimes boiled and drunk as a coffee substitute), salt, spices and sugar as mentioned above. "Store bought" clothes were rare, although sometimes materials were bought instead of being woven at home.

Samuel was also a carpenter and cabinetmaker of unquestioned skill. He maintained a wood-working shop (his "lumber shop") beside his blacksmith shop, just east of the house, facing the road. Erecting buildings and houses, making furniture and other items of wood, these were money making skills; and money was in a rather short supply in that area. Another of Samuel's skills which he practiced regularly, and for which he received no pay, was that of a maker of coffins for those who died in the community. This was his offering of love for his neighbors. The caskets were usually made of walnut, shaped in the old way; wide at the shoulder, narrow at the feet. The lid was hinged and the inside was lined with fabric, usually black muslin. (13) Neighbors were close in their sociality then, if not as close geographically as neighbors are today. When there was a bereavement in the community, the neighbors closed ranks around the sorrowing ones and took over. Women prepared food in vast amounts and carried it in to the family. Some of them washed the body, "laid it out," and prepared it for burial. Some of the men dug the grave. These people knew that grief, like work, is made lighter when shared by many.

Forty years before Samuel Smith was born, in the General Assembly of the State of Virginia passed an act providing for free education for indigent children, but it was not until 1870 that free public education as provided by law for all white children. At first it was not a popular move, for people tended to equate free education with the accepting of charity. Soon, however, it was an accepted and successful operation, and parents became concerned with securing the best possible teachers for their children.

Samuel had long been known for his beautiful handwriting, and he was often called upon to act as scribe for various persons when they needed something written out. Since he felt qualified, Samuel applied for and was granted a teacher's license in the Scott County schools.

The land for school buildings was donated by landowners in their communities. Generally, they did so to guarantee the proximity of the school to their own children. The donation of the scant quarter or half acre of land for the school was a very small sacrifice in many cases, because the site was unsuitable for growing crops. There was no need, in the minds of many parents, to provide a playground. Idle play was rather sternly looked upon. At many of the schools the only place the children could play was in the public road, and it was seldom kept in good repair.

The school houses were usually built of logs, chinked with mud and moss. The periodic repair and maintenance of the chinking was supposed to be the responsibility of the teacher and pupils.

There were three grades of certificates for teachers upon which their salaries were based. In the early days the third (or lowest) level was paid $15.00 per month; the second level teacher received $20.00 per month; a first level teacher earned $25.00 per month; and a teacher at the professional level could claim a grand salary of $30.00 per month. For a teacher to qualify for his full salary there must have been an average daily attendance of at least twenty students. For fewer than twenty (with a minimum average daily attendance of ten) the teacher received per-capita rate, and this could seriously affect the teacher's monthly salary. Beginning teachers were plagued by the fear of "falling below the average." To counteract low attendance, teachers engaged in many devices such as prizes for attendance and special activities.

The certification of teachers seemed to be rather loose and arbitrary affair. There was a little uniformity, and usually there was merely an oral examination which just might be administered while riding along on horseback in the company of the school superintendent. The would-be teachers, as a rule, had received their scholastic preparation (such as it was) in the local schools. Occasionally this was supplemented by a few months' work in an Academy or seminary. He was considered to be qualified if he demonstrated his ability to work the arithmetic problems of the grades he was to teach. This was an easily ascertainable check for his abilities, because failure to solve a problem was immediately evident to both pupils and parents. His deficiencies in other areas were less readily apparent. Most teachers were credited with greater knowledge and abilities than they actually possessed. The teachers were quite willing to foster this belief.

Parents preferred teachers who believed in corporal punishment and who had a reputation for being a stern teacher. For this reason, many people were opposed to women teachers, believing they were not strong enough physically to administer the rod as they felt it should be done.

The curriculum usually consisted of reading, spelling and arithmetic, with grammar and geography as electives. In Scott County, most of the text books were brought in wagons from Bristol, the nearest railway station at that time. Textbooks were not supplied by the school system then, and parents were expected to buy the books for their children. Because of their scarcity and high price, they were treated with utmost respect. The most commonly used textbooks were Webster's and Holmes' Spellers, McGuffey's Readers, Fowler's, Davie's and Ray's Arithmetic, Harvey's Grammers and Maury's Geographies.

Among the students, social standing and financial advantages were shown, not by the clothing they wore, but in the school lunch they brought from home. A lunch of cornbread bespoke poverty and was eaten in secret, away from the eyes of the other students. Wheat bread could be eaten openly - it stood for prosperity. (14)

Besides being a farmer, a carpenter, a cabinet and coffin maker, a scribe, a blacksmith, and a school teacher, Samuel Smith was also a postmaster. For many years he maintained a post office at Mack, VA in his home. The mail was delivered to Samuel's home in a padlocked pouch, and people would come to his house to pick up their mail or post their letters. To accommodate the post office, Samuel partitioned off a small area (about 4' x 6') in the large downstairs room. In theory, the people were supposed to come to the window and ask for their mail; in practice they were most likely to stop their horses in the road and yell, "Hey, Sam! Any mail today?" Samuel was loathe to bring the mail out to callers and passing the time of day with them, but only when Sarah was not around. Sarah, with her ironclad sense of what was right and proper, insisted that there would be no running of mail out to the road. If a person wanted his mail, he was obliged to come in and call for it like a civilized human being. (15)

Sarah's strong convictions provided a basis of the family's spiritual philosophy. In religious practices the family was Baptist, but one may wonder if they were Baptist because of belief or because of tradition. In the western part of Virginia at that time there was little religious choice available: one could be a Baptist, or a Methodist, or nothing. In some places one might find a Presbyterian church, but even they were relatively rare. Anyone espousing such esoteric beliefs as Catholic or Jews were as rare as travelers from another planet. But whatever their ethical and religious beliefs and profession, their membership in the Baptist church seemed to provide them with the spiritual guidance and association they needed. With their neighbors and friends, they met regularly and sang their songs, prayed their prayers, listened to sermons and praised the Lord. Samuel and the other men in the community constructed an outdoor stadium in the woods near Irvington school in preparation for the Baptist Association to meet. The amphitheater had long rows of seats made of rough planks to seat the crowd of people who would be coming from several counties to hear the preachers and the singing groups performing over a three-day period. The Association meeting began with preaching on Friday afternoon. After the preaching was over for the day, friends and family would visit until late in the night, then bed down wherever there was room to stretch out. Neighborhood houses were opened to seldom-seen friends, and it was not uncommon to find anywhere from five to eight children sleeping crosswise in one bed. Sarah spent days in advance of the Association meetings cooking and preparing for all the friends and loved ones they would be entertaining. Many who came did not have homes to stay in while they were there, so they slept in their wagons. On Saturday morning there was more preaching and singing; then there was a recess for lunch. Food was brought in baskets and spread on cloths on the ground. Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning again found the people in their meetings, and again on Sunday there was a "dinner on the ground." (16)

In the spring of 1916, Sarah became severely ill. In the manner of extended families at that time, their daughter, Bertha, and her family moved back into her childhood home to help take care of her parents. Bertha and Leon had seven children by that time, and they would have six more while they lived in Samuel's house.

Sarah was afflicted with a tumor, and as it increased in size it caused her periods of great pain. Samuel hired a buggy to take her to Gate City; there they boarded a train which carried them to Abingdon, VA, where Sarah could be treated in a hospital. Surgery relieved some of her pain, but revealed the sad fact that her condition could not be cured. Samuel brought her home on a cot in the baggage car of the train. She died on 23 July 1916 and was buried two days later, on her fifty-fifth birthday.

Samuel lived more than twenty-five years after Sarah's death, but he never remarried. For fourteen years, Bertha and her family lived with him and took care of him and the house. Leon farmed some with Samuel, but the two men didn't get along together very well. After a short time, Leon took a job that kept him away from home for a week or two at a time, coming home for a few days when he could.

Samuel filled his free hours by visiting with his many friends in their homes or his, at Sam Henry's store, or at Samuel's blacksmith shop. He liked to keep up-to-the-minute on all the latest news of the community and all its inhabitants. He would not have thought of himself as a gossip, but in his need to be the first to hear the news and pass it on he became irresponsible with the truth. It was said that most of his conversations began with the words, "They tell me..."

Samuel never owned a car, nor did he ever drive one. He traveled on foot, on horseback or in a horse-drawn wagon. He was unfamiliar with the specific functions of driving a car, but by observation he had determined that going and slowing were controlled by one or more foot pedals. Once while he was a passenger in a car driven by one of his grandsons, Frank Lane, Samuel decided that the young man was driving faster than safely and good sense decreed. He reached his own foot over and pushed down with all his might - on the accelerator. "Iffen you don't slow down," he adjured, "you're aimin' to kill us all!"

Frank was laconic. "Well, Grandpa, if you'd get your foot off the gas, I might get her stopped!"

It seemed that it was not just a different drummer that Samuel marched to; he marched to his own private drummer. Some of his actions were amusing, some were unexplainable, and some seemed childish and petty. But whatever his actions were, they always seemed to reflect his feelings honestly. He was never one to practice deception. He was, simply, just what he was.

Once he was plowing a field in which the corn was about a foot high. The day was quite warm, and Bertha was bringing him a drink of water. She saw the horse bend its head down as it pulled the plow along between the rows and bite off the tender young shoots of corn. Samuel was enraged. He dropped the lines, rushed up to the horse's head and bit it on the nose. "Dad blame you!" he cried, "you bite my corn, and I'll bite you!"  Perhaps Samuel was a man who bit his horse and spread gossip; maybe he "drove" a car recklessly and found fault with his son-in-law, but he loved his daughters without reservation. He also loved his grandchildren, and he spoiled them outrageously. Bertha's little boys were his perennial shadows. One of them, Miles McConnell, even begged to sleep with his grandpa.

After several years of two families living under one roof, and with many active children always underfoot, there arose some problems, some lack of harmony, between them. He cooked his own food in the fireplace in his bedroom and ate it alone. Shortly after that, in 1930, Leonard bought a house in Kingsport, TN, and moved his family out of the Smith house. Samuel was too advanced in age to be left entirely alone, so Julia and her family moved in with him at that time. (17)

In March, 1942, Samuel (a man advanced in age, but still active) was burning off one of his fields. Somehow the fire got out of control and was becoming a threat to a fine stand of timber. Samuel was alone. He fought the fire with more energy than his eighty-four year old body could endure. He fell to the ground, his heart failing.

Samuel Elbert Smith passed from this life on March 16, 1942, but he left behind him a large posterity and a wealth of family tradition.

The Smith house, once so proudly white and straight, still stands today and is inhabited. It is no longer white and straight however. The wood has weathered a silver gray; the porches sag, and rail supports are missing in places. The cedar shake roof has been replaced with galvanized metal. The wood paling fence is no longer there to define the yard. The breezeway has been enclosed, and electricity has come to the house. The springhouse has been taken over by the weeds and mud. Where once a gourd of icy cold, pure water could be had, and milk and cream were kept in cool freshness, now there is just a small stream of questionable purity flowing by the house.

As one stands before the house now, there is a sense, a special feeling; the past is still here. One could almost feel that, at any moment, a tall spare man with black hair and a drooping moustache would emerge from the house to offer the mail with a smile and a word of greeting. One can sense the presence of Sarah, slender and straight even in her last years, wearing her long skirt and white starched apron. They will be there forever.

Footnotes: (1) Commonwealth of Virginia, Vital Records of Scott County, Birth Records, Gate City, VA (2) Victoria Smith Strong, as reported by Julia Brooks, July, 1980 (3) Interview with Anne McConnell Gillenwater, granddaughter of Samuel Elbert Smith, Gate City, VA, March 29, 1982. (4) Robert M. Addington, History of Scott County, Virginia, (Kingsport, TN: By the author, 1932), p. 148 (5) Interview with Lee J. Gillenwater, Gate City, VA, Sept. 1980 (6) Commonwealth of Virginia, Vital Records of Scott Co., Marriage Records, Bk 1, p. 95; U. S. Bureau of the Census, Eighth Census of the United States: 1860. Population. (7) Anne McConnell Gillenwater (8) Commonwealth of Virginia, Vital Records of Scott County, Marriage Records, Bk 2, p. 58, 1. 19. (9) Norma McConnell Fogleman, Unpublished MS, Blountville, TN, 1980 (10) Interview with Ralph Emerson McConnell, grandson of Samuel Elbert Smith, Kingsport, TN, March 29, 1982 (11) Commonwealth of Virginia, Vital Records of Scott County, Birth Records, Gate City, VA (12) Anne McConnell Gillenwater (13) ibid (14) Addington, pp. 157-188 (15) Anne McConnell Gillenwater (16) Norma McConnell Fogleman (17) Anne McConnell Gillenwater.

Bibliography: Commonwealth of Virginia, Vital Records of Scott County; U. S. Bureau of the Census: Eighth Census of the United States, 1860. Population; U. S. Bureau of the Census. Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Population; Addington, Robert Mr., History of Scott County, Virginia, Kingsport, TN: Privately printed, 1932; Fogleman, Norma McConnell. Unpublished MS. Blountville, TN, 1980; Gillenwater, Anne McConnell, Interview, Gate City, VA, March 29, 1982; Gillenwater, Lee I. Interview, Gate City, VA, Sept. 1980; McConnell, Ralph Emerson. Interview. Kingsport, TN. March 29, 1982.

Home ] Up ] 5-Confederates ] Kilgore Ft. House ] Catholicism ] Rafting ] Long Hunters ] Dr. McConnell ] Spartan Band ] Hanging Sheriffs ] W.D. Smith ] Frontier Forts ] Chief Benge ] James Boone ] Old Mills ] Whites Forge ] Whiteforge Post Office ] [ Samuel Smith ] James Shoemaker ] Jane and Polly ] Indian Missionary ] Patrick Porter ] Phillips Killing ] Boone Trail ] Stoney Creek Baptist ] Methodism ] Daniel Boone ] Estil Cemetery ] Scott Co. Names ] Confederate Soldiers ] Drayton Hale ] Reids Normal School ] Dr. N. Stallard ] Indian Forays ]